World Asia Pacific First Look

Philippines will offer 6 million women free contraceptives

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is trying to expand access to contraceptives as part of his anti-poverty plans.

A woman and her children take shelter at a sidewalk after their house was destroyed in a fire at a squatter colony in Navotas, Metro Manila in the Philippines on Jan. 10, 2017. President Duterte has ordered government agencies to provide contraceptives to women in effort to reduce the poverty rate.
Erik De Castro/Reuters
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed an executive order on Monday creating free access to contraceptives for as many as 6 million women who have unmet family planning needs, in what his government describes as a poverty-reduction measure.

Of those women, 2 million who have been identified as poor will get access by 2018, followed by the remaining 4 million. The order directs government agencies to partner with civil services and mobilize at the village level to locate eligible couples.

That drive, economic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia told the Associated Press, is designed to achieve “zero unmet need for family planning” as part of the government’s larger goal of cutting the poverty rate before the end of Mr. Duterte's term of office: from 21.6 percent in 2015 to 13 or 14 percent by 2022.

The move could add a bit of unexpected shading to the profile of a president who is known mostly in the West for his bloody war on drugs and impertinent treatment of foreign emissaries. It isn’t the first such gesture, as The Christian Science Monitor noted in a November article on Duterte’s meeting with the leader-in-hiding of the secessionist Moro National Liberationist Front rebels, an effort to jump-start peace talks:

While it may seem contrary that the same leader who is spearheading the nationwide peace process also espouses a controversial war on drugs that has killed more than 2,000 people, the dual roles that Duterte plays may not be mutually exclusive. Despite wariness about his strategies potentially violating human rights, his strong hand methods and record in bringing peace to one of the most violent cities in the Philippines when he was mayor of Davao City are seen by some as assets that may help him finally clinch the long-sought peace deals in the country.

“The first job of the president is not to go to war but rather to bring peace in this country,” Duterte said in July, as reported by Rappler. “My job is to bring peace. My job is to talk to the enemies of the state, to the Communist Party of the Philippines, to the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), and to the men, and see if I could make a difference in our lives.”

The executive order could face resistance from the Roman Catholic Church, as have similar initiatives in the past. A landmark law passed in 2012, for instance, established free and universal access to contraceptives and mandated reproductive-health programs in government schools. Legal challenges from conservative Catholic groups managed to get several of the law’s provisions struck down, and in 2015 the Supreme Court suspended indefinitely the distribution of a contraceptive implant and renewal of licenses for other contraceptives.

The church has taken a leading role in ousting Philippine leaders in the past: Along with the “People’s Power” movement that dethroned dictator Ferdinand Marcos, it helped get president Joseph Estrada impeached in 2001. But it has kept quiet on the wave of drug-war killings in the early months of Duterte’s administration, as Reuters noted in October.

The UN Population Fund said last year that the Philippines was the only Asia-Pacific country where the rate of teen pregnancies rose over the past two decades, although its overall fertility rate declined – a potential obstacle, it said, in the Philippines’ hopes for faster economic growth.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.